Switzerland is known for expensive watches, handy knives and decadent chocolate. But whether it’s Rolex or Lindt, they all have quality in common.

Switzerland — which is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined — has no natural resources, and it’s located on one of the most expensive continents in the world. Yet it’s built itself into one of the most competitive economies, ranking second in the 2007-2008 Global Competitiveness Report, and third in the 2007-2008 Global IT Report, both published by the World Economic Forum.

Switzerland follows Japan among the world’s most innovative nations, according to “Innovation: Transforming the way Business Creates,” a 2007 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. It has 148 biotech companies, and ranks first in immunology, molecular biology, pharmacology and physics. And it’s among the world’s top five countries in research and development for biotech and nano-technology, with more than 300 research groups at universities and other public institutions focusing on biotechnology.

Switzerland also has its own Silicon Valley of sorts. Y-Parc was designed as a science and technology park in the region of Yverdon-les-Bains, located in the centre of Europe; so far, 800 companies operate out of this region. Y-Parc plays an active role in promoting new technological innovations by providing an environment where university laboratories can develop concepts and ideas.

Here in Canada, we’re rich in natural resources, but many believe we’re too dependent on things that will eventually dry up. Switzerland can teach us a few lessons about how to build a knowledge-based economy — and be successful at it.

Solar island

Switzerland doesn’t pump out oil, but it’s putting R&D dollars into other forms of energy, such as the large-scale production of electricity through solar thermal power generation — a concept being tested by the Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique in Neuchatel.

CSEM is a not-for-profit private company under contract by the Swiss government to perform R&D in the areas of micro- and nano-technologies, with a mission of industrializing these technologies. Logitech, Siemens, Philips and Bosch are among its shareholders; CSEM relies on public/private partnerships for research, production development, prototyping, small-scale production and technology consulting. To date, it has more than 500 patents.

One project includes a concept called “solar islands” for the large-scale production of electricity and hydrogen. The idea is to build large solar islands that float in the sea; these will be fitted with solar thermal panels that convert solar energy into electricity and hydrogen at very low cost. Nolaris, a CSEM startup, developed a new technology for solar thermal panels that will be used on a prototype currently under construction in the United Arab Emirates, which will be fully operational by the end of this year. The first island will have a circular shape measuring 87 metres in diameter; it will hover above the desert sands and turn in the direction of the sun (the platform will correspond conceptually to the solar islands designed to be on the surface of the sea).

Higher education

Switzerland also encourages partnerships between universities and the private sector, and many of its startups come straight out of school. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, for example, has more than 100 startups onsite, developing micro- and nano-structures for research in sciences, prototyping and fabricating, including everything from bio-MEMS to nano-photonics to medical devices. This year alone, the university undertook 120 different projects in its 24 on-site and seven external labs.

One project is an EPFL startup called Sensimed, which deals with glaucoma, a disease that affects 70 million people worldwide and results in blindness if not treated soon enough. Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops to regulate pressure or through surgery. But it’s difficult to diagnose (and therefore choose a suitable therapy), since patients require 24-hour monitoring to make an accurate diagnosis.

Sensimed has invented a soft contact lens containing a sensor antenna and microprocessor to monitor pressure for long durations. The system includes a Bluetooth module, battery and circuit board in an iPod-sized reader case with an emitter receiver coil and pre-amplifier. The reader is linked to a pair of glasses or patch that can be worn over the eye at night. Energy is sent to the antenna and the contact lens is able to send back voltage measurements.

It’s similar to RFID tags, said project manager Arnaud Bertsch, except more information is being communicated through the device.

“There’s a large market opportunity,” he said. “There’s a clear unmet need.” It’s expected to be on the market within a year.

The future is in your hands

Another EPFL startup is Scanlight Imaging, which is bringing video projection technology to handheld devices using micro- and nano-technologies. On your cell phone, for example, you will be able to view, present and share multimedia content via an embeddable colour micro-projector. This low-cost technology is low on power consumption, said Nicolas Abele, CTO of Scanlight Imaging.

Scanlight developed a micro-mirror (patents pending) to create a micro-projector that is 2mm thick and 2×2 cm wide/long. The projected image is 15 inches (diagonally) at a distance of 50 cm, and projection time is two hours with a standard battery. A full prototype will be ready by the end of this year, though the micro-mirror is already on the market for applications such as barcodes, spectrometers and laser marking. Gartner, IDC and IMS Research all predict a huge market opportunity for handheld devices with micro-projection.

Space technology

Switzerland is also home to a number of multinational corporations, many of which do at least a portion of their manufacturing in the country, rather than sending it all to China.

Oerlikon Space, for example, has 170 sites in 35 countries, and develops space-based products and services, including GPS chipsets and receivers and high-tech components for applications in space. Its Swiss headquarters are located in the Greater Zurich Area.

Most space programs are driven by institutional requests from organizations like the European Space Agency, United Launch Alliance in the U.S., Arianespace in France and Carl Zeiss in Germany. The Russians and Chinese rely on their own technology and don’t buy products from Europe, so Oerlikon Space focuses on technology for European and American launchers. It builds the structure for satellites, planetary probes and space telescopes, and is the major European supplier of complex space mechanisms, specialized in the field of pointing technology.

It’s developing lasers that are not for use on Earth (since clouds get in the way), but have applications for data transmission over large distances in space. Currently, satellites use RF for transmitting compressed data; however, laser communications provides higher data rates with the same energy consumption. The challenge is to align the laser precisely, which requires sophisticated software: there’s a 45-minute time delay to Mars, for example, so technicians must estimate where the satellite

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